The language and culture of technology start-ups seems to be leaking into other industries, and hearing a term like "get to scale" from a food company entrepreneur is actually refreshing.
One thing that tech company founders all seem to talk about, after all, is how they won't be satisfied with the good living provided by a successful mom-and-pop. They dream bigger than that. They dream of getting to scale.
Creating a profitable business of any size is still an achievement worth celebrating, of course. But founder and principal owner Tyler Carlson of Minneapolis-based Origin Meals hopes to reach at least $10 million in sales by 2020.
"I like tech terminology, even though we are in food," he said. "I think what we've done so far is proof of concept. The challenge ahead of us, and part of why we put a lofty goal out there, is to press myself and the team so that we can get to proof of scale."
Carlson, 29, is a food business entrepreneur because that's where he saw the opportunity, as a potential customer who couldn't easily find what he wanted in the market.
He had joined a CrossFit gym and embraced the challenge of switching what he ate to what's called the paleo diet. That's when he found out just how difficult it is to consistently eat nothing but completely unprocessed foods without a lot of help.
The paleo diet, for the uninitiated, comes from the term Paleolithic, a long prehistoric period usually rounded off to the Stone Age. Think eat-like-a-cave man and you are not far off.
It's based on the idea that we humans have not evolved sufficiently since the Stone Age to handle diets that now may consist of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Bruegger's Bagels or a cheese soufflé. The cave men only ate unprocessed meat, vegetables, nuts and some fruits, so that's all we should eat, too.
Cave men apparently also ate carrion and were likely dead before 35, but at least it wasn't coronary artery disease that killed them.
The business idea, however, wasn't to try to get $11.50 from consumers for nothing but a chunk of raw bison meat with a side order of pine nuts.
In taste tests here at the office, the Origin Meals pot roast with horseradish aioli was a hit. So was the turkey ossobuco with spaghetti squash. The chicken and cherry salad with poppy seed dressing got a good review, too, as the bits of chicken were not dry and near tasteless as they often are in this kind of salad.
These meals also happened to comply with a rigid diet.
Carlson started the company in 2013 with a gym willing to free up refrigerator space to keep Origin's paleo meals, allowing members to pick up what they had ordered as they left the gym after working out. The company grew by adding gyms and is now delivering to about 55.
Today Carlson has a profitable business serving the members of these gyms, "but there isn't a ton of headroom to grow," he said.
His two best growth options are to jump to other metropolitan areas with a thriving fitness culture, or to expand beyond gyms here in the company's home market. Carlson plans to try both.
"There's got to be at least 20 or 30 of these companies focused on meals for CrossFit gyms" around the country, he said. Many are mom-and-pop operations, he said, maybe started by a fitness enthusiast with restaurant experience who knew how hard it would be to adopt a paleo diet without somebody helping to prepare the right kind of meals.
This is where scale enters the picture. Origin Meals already has what those entrepreneurs largely do not, the software and other infrastructure for error-free ordering and delivery. The Twin Cities gym owners I checked with confirmed that this is a company that never misses a delivery commitment.
Origin Meals also has additional kitchen capacity coming, with a lease to be signed as soon as this week for expanded space in Hopkins.
Carlson hopes to persuade entrepreneurs that Origin Meals should take over the business and hire them, a form of business combination known as an "acquihire." That lets the entrepreneur collect some money for the business while going back to working with food and serving their customers, mostly relieved of the headaches of operations and finance.
He thinks his other opportunity is here in the Twin Cities with home delivery of meals. To broaden its appeal, Origin Meals has expanded its product lines from paleo ("When we say paleo, we mean strict") to paleo plus grains and vegetarian.
Carlson and marketing manager Krista McFarlin acknowledged that Paleo could easily fade in popularity as a diet. But the trend of more consumers hoping to capture the health benefits of eating only unprocessed and organic foods, McFarlin said, "is just getting started."
One challenge will be finding enough home delivery customers in an already crowded market, as the home delivery of prepared meals is not exactly a new idea. In addition to restaurants happy to let services like Bite Squad deliver to their customers, there appear to be at least a dozen providers in the Twin Cities a little like Origin Meals, letting customers order meals online for home delivery.
Origin Meals home delivers to about 40 customers per week now in the Twin Cities, Carlson said, borrowing another term from tech start-up culture by calling its home delivery service a "beta" test.
A beta test is designed to get useful comments back from users, and he said the results are promising so far. Then he quickly acknowledged that it's too soon to know for sure that broad home delivery is the best path to reach the annual sales target of $10 million in 2020.
"That, to us, is proof of scale," Carlson said, of the sales target. "We have to figure out now how to do that. It's the fun adventure we get to be on every day."